Friday, October 31, 2008

Snapshots from Chicago

  • It was a beautiful day in the Second City, and I spent it inside a windowless board room voting on things. Thank goodness for lunch and a stroll in Grant Park, where the Obama campaign has taken over a huge chunk of land to set up their election night celebration. Gazing out over the city tonight from the balcony of the organization's penthouse suite, full of the conviction of shared ideals, was almost overwhelmingly emotional.
  • One of the strangest experiences of a meeting like this is having your name recognized by someone you don't know. The meeting has barely begun, but in the elevator, a Virginia graduate student introduced himself by saying that my name was still bandied about in the department. (I hope the stories are positive.) At the book exhibit, a person whose name I knew because he's a committee chair knew my name from reading my work.
  • While browsing the book exhibit, a voice at my elbow said, "Nice Clapotis." Yes, there was a knitter making herself known, someone who recognized the famous pattern and correctly pronounced the secret password. Turns out she's a grad student in North Carolina who's known on Ravelry by the name Lazuli. Wearing a popular handknit is like flashing a gang sign-- instant bonding.
  • Sure, Chicago is beautiful (67 degree weather and brilliant fall sunshine today). Sure, my colleagues are marvelous and I care for them and our common enterprise deeply. But is this a pleasure cruise? As I told my students, I'll be awakening before dawn tomorrow for an ungodly 7 am breakfast meeting. Not my idea of a vacation, no matter how wonderful the company or the cause.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My kind of town

I am in the great city of Chicago. And right now I should be stepping into Scott's car and heading a mile uptown to have a drink or two with this man, whom, LIKE ALL RIGHT-THINKING AMERICANS, I greatly admire.

But after a five-hour meeting and the threat of a physical complaint that sometimes assails me when I am under stress (can you guess? I'm not going to tell), I've decided that going out tonight isn't in the cards.


But probably a boon to those who will be spending tomorrow with me in a 9 to 5 meeting.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Notes before takeoff

  • Tomorrow I head north to the great city of Chicago -- the city with the big shoulders, that toddlin' town -- for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. It will be an easier trip than the Denmark jaunt of a couple of weeks ago, of course. But I told my students that they shouldn't envy me. Almost as soon as I check into my hotel, there's a 5 pm - 10 pm meeting. Then on Friday, a 9 am - 5 pm meeting. Then -- the real killer -- the Saturday morning 7 am meeting. It's not going to be a restful jaunt. But I hope to break away long enough to see my Chicago colleagues for dinner or a drink. Don't worry, guys, I'll be in touch.
  • I finally got away from the office long enough to get a haircut this afternoon. The stylist plucked something from the back of my head and held it up to show me. It was a gray hair, but not just a gray hair -- a crinkled, curly gray hair. In other words, a terrifying glimpse of the near future, when my thick, slightly wavy, easy-to-manage strawberry blond coif turns into a colorless mass of kinks.
  • Following an intriguing recommendation from Boing Boing, I bought ABC3D (only $11.97 with free Amazon Prime two-day shipping when I ordered!), the stunning and elegant alphabetical pop-up book by Marion Bataille. Check it out -- my favorites are the U and Z.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dressing up

Today's post about a new costume is at Toxophily.

In other costume news, Archer will be a Lego brick for Halloween, thanks to this tutorial.

Cady Gray will be a beautiful princess, thanks to the best costume I could find at the consignment sale.

And each will have a jack-o-lantern that strangely resemble him or her.

Monday, October 27, 2008

In the news

We are all fine. No students of mine were involved. It was good to be in the office and choose our student teaching assistants for next semester -- to focus on the future and the mission that continues even when violent crime invades our beautiful campus.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and messages.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rapunzel, Rapunzel

While walking with Noel after dinner last night, Archer said that he wanted to play Rapunzel, with him as Rapunzel and Noel as the prince. I assume the following rhyming game was inspired by some book he read at school during his fairy tale unit.

Archer: How will you get me?

Noel: I'll use a ladder.

Archer: (Makes sound of something falling off a tower and crashing) You gave me cake batter.

Noel: OK, I'll use a rope.

Archer: (Same sound) There goes the cantaloupe.

Noel: OK, let down your hair.

Archer: (Sound) That was just a bear.

Noel: I'll get some tree branches.

Archer: (Long pause, then the sound) That was a squirrel named Frances.

Noel: I'm using a pole.

Archer: (Sound) That was just a hole! (Pause) Hey Dad, a person from Poland is also called a pole.

Noel: That's right.

Archer: (Sound)

Noel: What was that?

Archer: That was a person from Poland.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Danish dining

A quick rundown of the culinary side of my recent trip:

Here's a typical spread at the student center. You can see chicken, potatoes, pasta salad, vegetables, and a couple of different fish plates.

The three-course conference banquet was almost ridiculously posh. Here's the meat course, with artfully arranged parsnip and beet.

And this was dessert -- a chocolate cake with ganache topping and ice cream.

Danishes do exist in Denmark, but they are not called Danishes.

I tried to eat as cheaply as possible -- this single-huge-pizza-slice lunch cost me 25 kroner, or about $4.50.

On my last night in Denmark, I treated myself to this delectable plate of spaghetti bolognese. No matter where you go, pasta's usually a safe bet, and sometimes it's truly remarkable.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fix it!

We watched the final Saturday Night Live Thursday edition last night. Then I read my colleague Nathan Rabin's post about it this morning.

I'm not sure I saw the same episode, to be frank. I don't believe I've laughed more at any SNL-produced piece of television in the last year. Part of it, I'm sure, is just a difference in perspective. For example, while I understand why Seth Myers rubs people the wrong way on Weekend Update, I have a very different experience, because I filter his performance through Amy Poehler. I trust Amy Poehler. I believe she's funny, and she knows what's funny. I think she has a great sense of humor. And because she clearly enjoys what Seth Myers is doing, I tend to give Myers a huge break.

But the part of Nathan's review that really runs counter to my perceptions is his accusation that Kenan Thompson's economics commentator character. He describes the shtick as a one-note idea that has been run into the ground by having him appear three times in a row. No clips appear to be on YouTube, so if you haven't seen it, you're out of luck. The character, upset about the economy, demands that somebody "fix it!" He offers a three-step plan. Step 1: Fix! Step 2: It! Step 3: Fix it! Thompson pronounces it more like "Fiss it! and yells it in a screechy staccato of frustration.

Yes, there's only one joke. But it's precisely because the economic news gone from bizarrely bad to bizarrely worse that the repetition of the gag week after week strikes me as brilliant. When Thompson came on this week, he was trembling with fear and anger. What can any of us do in the face of this massive boondoggle but yell to "them" to "fix it!"? Thompson's impotence seems to speak volumes at this moment in time. And without the recurrence of the bit week to week, that fuming, combined with the inability to offer any particular plan, is exactly where all us viewers find ourselves.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Of happiness

  • Paul McCartney's slight but beautiful song "Bluebird" came up while my ancient iPod was shuffling today. It reminded me of an odd coincidence -- several songs I love have "bluebird" in the title. ELO, one of my favorite bands, has not one but two great bluebird songs: the early album track "Bluebird Is Dead," and the obscure eighties deep cut "Bluebird." The latter is a near perfect pop song: joyful, soaring, and beautifully arranged.

  • Thanks to what I can only describe as an inauspicious television choice, Archer is now preoccupied with Rachel Ray. He recreates her 30-minute meals program with Play-Doh, recruiting Cady Gray to be his partner, also named Rachel Ray. This apparently started while I was in Denmark, but I've witnessed the creation of a pancake breakfast and smiley-face cookies. I think Archer's favorite parts are the commercial breaks; he seems delighted to be able to say "And we'll be right back after these messages."

  • Cady Gray came home today full of excitement about an encounter with a bee on the playground. "Samir found a bee, and I had to run from the bee. I was running away from the bee!" she repeated with great gravity. I asked her if it was a friendly bee, and she said, "No, there are no friendly bees."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Kittens, cats, sacks, wives

Today's post documenting my Aarhus yarn crawl is again at Toxophily.

At Archer's parent-teacher conference on Tuesday, while I was still on my way back from Denmark, Noel heard a typical Archer anecdote from his teacher. It seems that the class was talking about the old riddle "As I Was Going To St. Ives" a while back. You remember it, don't you?

As I was going to St. Ives
I met a man with seven wives
And every wife had seven sacks
And every sack had seven cats
And every sack had seven kittens
Kittens, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St. Ives?

The teacher was writing the numbers up on the board and exclaiming over how difficult it was going to be to total it all up. Another student volunteered the answer -- one -- and said that he had seen it in a book.

Later that day, Archer went up to his teacher and said "2801."

"2801 what?" she asked.

"2801 people going the other way," he replied.

I like to think of him sitting at his desk patiently figuring it up in his head. Because the official answer has always been unsatisfying to me, too, avoiding as it does all the interesting calculations in favor of a patently unmotivated assumption that one can't meet people traveling the same direction as you.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

24 hour party person

After almost a full 24 hours of travel, broken up by a few dozing hours over the Atlantic, I'm home -- or at least at the Little Rock airport waiting for the luggage. Today's post on conference knitting (prepared in advance) is at Toxophily. Now to home and to bed as fast as may be.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Scenes from a yarn crawl

Today's main purpose was to visit as many Aarhus yarn stores as I possibly could. My total: 4 1/2. But I'll save that adventure for a Toxophily post sometime in the next week, and instead give you a glimpse of the sightseeing I did in between fiber-fondling.

I started at the Frue Kirke, the Church of Our Lady.

Underneath the church is a crypt church that was built in the 11th century -- the oldest preserved building in Denmark. It was forgotten after the Reformation and only rediscovered during a twentieth-century renovation project. I thought this picture without flash was the best representation of the place. The reproduction of the original Romanesque crucifix is just a bare outline, stern and mysterious.

These small arched windows under the side vaults let in the only light.

Near the end of my afternoon, I finally went into the Cathedral (St. Clemens Kirke or the Domkirke), which is right by my hotel. The number of frescoes that survived the Reformation is remarkable. Here's a detail from a three-level depiction of purgatory, the judgment, and Christ enthroned; check out those angels pulling souls away from such torments as being roasted on a spit!

I loved the intricate brass portals that were created in the 16th century.

A Baroque marble piece in an entrance chapel featured these rather alarming memento mori among the fat cherubs and fashionable depictions of the patron nobility.

My last stop was the Viking Museum that lies underneath a large bank building beside the cathedral. During construction, ninth century artifacts were uncovered, so this museum was built as a basement to house some of the relics. I liked the information displayed on the stairs down to the museum -- walking down equals walking back in time.

And to end this intermittently morbid slideshow on an appropriate note, the skeleton of a Viking in situ, as found on the floor of his pit house.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Around every corner in Aarhus, there is an inviting lane beckoning you on.

Shall we take this broad, tree-lined boulevard leading down from the university on the top of the hill to the city below ...

... or turn in at the Botanical Gardens when we see this peaceful scene?

There the grassy hills fairly beg you to lie on your back and watch the passing clouds.

No time to stop, though, when this path meanders downhill nearby.

The autumn color and the slight chill in the air only sharpen the senses.

Head down this steep, sandy trail toward the water, and the scent of spruce that unexpectedly wafts past will bring Christmas unbidden to mind.

Back in town, the broad banks of the river make an ideal spot to pause and people-watch.

Mansfield Park
is a fine literary accompaniment for such a moment of leisure.

Round off the day with some rich chocolate gelato.

You'll be glad you took the journey.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I want to shine on in the hearts of men

Today was all about the marathon conferencing. I got up at 7 am, the same time I got up yesterday morning, under the theory that I managed to arrive at the conference at 9 am yesterday, the same time that sessions started today. (So much for theory -- I arrived about 8:20.)

It was cloudy with intermittent spitting rain and mist, not the best day for walking or picture-taking. But I did enjoy a Berliner on the way, a pastry that always reminds me of my undergraduate German teacher, who delighted in telling the story that John Kennedy had erred in his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" statement; the correct grammar is "Ich bin Berliner," no article. My teacher, who looked like Santa Claus, would say with a jolly laugh that Kennedy had actually said, "I am a jelly doughnut."

Then: conference conference conference. Morning session; plenary; lunch; afternoon session; afternoon session at which I presented a paper. (I thought my paper the best of the bunch in the afternoon, if I do say so myself; but its appearance at the end of such a long day meant that while attendence was good, attentiveness suffered somewhat. At least one attendee right in my line of sight slept through the whole thing.)

Tonight is the banquet at the Aarhus Art Museum, a massive and relatively new cultural project named "Aros" after the original Viking name for the city. I have a cautious expectation that we will not have to purchase our own wine; so far beer and soft drinks have been provided on each table during the conference meals, but at the first dinner last night a group of would-be drinkers was required to pool their kroner for wine.

A few pictures, although weather wasn't conducive to photography as on Day 1:

Ever wonder what the Danish version of Dancing With The Stars looks like?

How about the Danish version of America's Got Talent? (Denmark's Got Talent?)

Despite the city's hilly streets, bicycles are the way to get around. Dozens are parked on every sidewalk.

The Danes have a thing for gummi. This display at a convenience store around the corner from my hotel is just the tip of the iceberg. At the theology building where the conference is held, the vending machine contains one row of chocolate candy and three full rows of gummi products. Also some sort of salty licorice is inexplicably popular, with three different brands of the stuff represented in the vending machine. Those crazy Danes!

One awesome thing about the time difference: I'm seven hours ahead of Central Daylight Time, where Noel and the kids are. So when I get up in the morning, it's midnight back home, and when I go to sleep late at night, it's mid-afternoon for them. Last night I got an e-mail from Noel with the kid update news (short version: kids are awesome) in the evening when I got back to my hotel -- the one he wrote the day before. Then when I got up this morning, I turned on the computer and there was another kid update -- the one he wrote just minutes earlier. It's like they're living in a faster timestream than me, one that can fit a whole day into my overnight nap.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Breaking the norms

I woke up in my crazy little 3rd-class-on-the-Queen-Mary-style "economy room" after a refreshing full night's sleep and headed out to find breakfast and the university where the conference was taking place.

Breakfast report: No Danishes were on sale at the coffee shop where I bought a bagel.
Walk report: Here's what I saw.

My hotel is on the left just past the footbridge, right on the river that runs through town.

Everybody wears scarves in Denmark -- knit, pashmina, something. And naturally the modish shop windows are full of scarves. I had to capture this one for the Ravelry folks -- it's actually a tube. If somebody can figure out those cables, I'll whip up a version. (I've got a close-up, no worries.) Naturally I feel quite in fashion with my Clapotis tucked around my neck.

There's a large park in the middle of the University campus, and I kept trying to capture how it looked in the brilliant early morning sunlight. This was as close as I got.

Moon over University of Aarhus. All the buildings are built of yellow brick with simple, clean architectural lines, and few are over two stories. There are 20,000 students enrolled.

Next to the theater building was this steep grass-covered amphitheater. I'd love to see Aristophanes performed here.

Fall is in full swing here -- the scarf-clad Danes are enjoying mild weather of 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit -- and the colors are beautiful, as shown by this deciduous ivy covering one of the economics buildings.

And finally to the conference, in the buildings housing the theological faculty. My paper will be read in this lovely, radically raked auditorium tomorrow, though not with nearly as many people in attendance as were at this opening plenary with Kirsten Nielsen.

Time to turn my tiny bathroom into a shower by means of a rotating curtain. Perhaps I'll sleep on the pulldown bunk over my head, or in the murphy bed underneath. You'll be amazed a room smaller than half the double dorm rooms at my university can sleep a family of three!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

One day later, on the other side of the ocean

Eventful travels are not always welcome, especially when one's goal is to reach one's destination rather than have an adventure along the way. I did have some unusual twists and turns to my journey over the last 16 hours. But now I'm sitting in a first class car on the delightful Danish InterCity rail, having by chance made the earliest possible train to Aarhus after my arrival in Copenhagen, and even though it's an hour or so later than I had expected to be clickety-clacking toward my hotel, nothing gives you a sense of relief – that “ah, all is well” feeling – like a seat on a European train. Clean, efficient, on time, smooth as silk. It's travel the way it was meant to be.

Which I cannot say for air travel these days, although to be fair, my last two flights were on time and featured luxurious British service. There were only supposed to be two flights total, you see. I was going to Chicago, then straight to Copenhagen on SAS, then I was going to be on this train – or to be precise, the one that left an hour ago.

But after checking in for my Little Rock to Chicago flight about three hours early, having a leisurely lunch, and catching up on my e-mail, I presented my boarding pass when my group number was called, only to have the machine beep angrily and spit it back out. See, the airline had substituted a smaller plane from the one on whose basis advance tickets were sold. The agent had been searching for 14 volunteers to give up their seats, and had bumped about 7 people after he predictably didn't reach that number. But it turns out he should have been searching for 15 people; I checked in before the change was made, and my seat number was assigned to someone else. After a man gave up his seat but specified that it was for a businessman who was quite insistent, I was the one on the short end of the stick. Denied boarding.

I got a $300 travel voucher out of it, and the agent rebooked me as follows: Little Rock to Dallas/Fort Worth, Dallas/Fort Worth to London Heathrow, London Heathrow to Copenhagen. (He tried to give me a free upgrade to business class on the transatlantic flight – those lay-flat beds, you know? Oh, my Lord – but the system wouldn't let him.)

I was skeptical that my bag was going to follow me on this new itinerary. It was pulled off the Chicago flight at the last minute, then instructions were sent down to retag it. The flight to Dallas was about 25 minutes late, and by the time I took the train over to Terminal D, the London flight was already boarding. It seemed like a fifty-fifty shot that my bag made it onto that plane – added to the already uncertain probability that the bag got retagged correctly and was actually intending to follow my route.

My economy class flight to London, back with the tailies, was about as good as such cramped quarters can be; you still get good service on the transatlantic routes, it seems. I didn't catch more than 15 winks, I'd guess, in the eight and a half hours. I watched an episode of Old Christine I don't think I'd seen ("What About Barb?"), an episode of The Office I had enjoyed very much the first time around (“Complaint Resolution”), and the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler vehicle Baby Mama, which is just the kind of lightly amusing fare you need to see on a plane.

After landing in the maze of Heathrow and negotiating the bewildering series of buses needed to get from terminal to terminal, I landed in Terminal 5, where they have a system of departures that I hadn't encountered before. The gates aren't assigned to outgoing flights until 30-90 minutes before they leave. Everyone waits in a big shopping concourse and watches the computerized boards, and when a gate pops up for their flight, they book it – some of the gates are 20 minutes away and require you to take a train! It's a little nerve-racking waiting for that gate to appear, as your flight time draws nearer and nearer, and flights leaving only five minutes before yours show “boarding” or even worse “closing.” I ate a cheddar and pickle sandwich and tried not to think about where my suitcase might be.

The flight to Copenhagen was only half full, and I had a row to myself for a change. As I watched the mist and rain roll by the plane's windows on our descent and heard the temperature on the ground (10 degrees C), I worried more about my bag situation. You see, when I did my final packing yesterday morning, I had intended to put my fleece jacket in my carry-on, along with my usual change of clothes, computer and accessories, knitting, and books (this time in Kindle form). But the jacket was so bulky and made the bag so awkward to carry that I stuffed it in the front pocket of my suitcase instead. Either the suitcase will make it there with me, I reasoned, or the weather (which was supposed to be mild according to the international forecast), wouldn't be so awful early in the evening, when I expected to be walking to my hotel from the Aarhus station – the only outdoor leg of my trip.

But all my fellow passengers had jackets, rain gear, scarves – the whole nine yards. I began to prepare myself for buying a jacket in the Copenhagen airport so I wouldn't freeze in my thin rayon top and jeans.

Miracle of miracles, though – when I arrived in Copenhagen, got through passport control, changed some money, and made my way to the baggage belt – my suitcase came around. I said a silent thank-you to the harried American Airlines agent who had gotten me off on the right foot.

So here I am in the first-class car (the only seats available – an extra 100 Kröner, or about $20, over the normal second-class fare), typing away on my worktable, drinking complimentary water and eating complimentary apples, experiencing Skandinavia the way I would have chosen if I'd had all the modes of transport in the world from which to select. The sun is setting behind the clearing clouds, the car lighting is warm, the illuminated signs and streetlights of the towns we're speeding by are picturesque, even poignant. A little sleep – okay, a lot of sleep – is all I need now. Tomorrow, the conference begins, and today's weariness will be temporarily forgotten.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Torn away

I travel four or five times a year on business -- to conferences and board meetings, mostly. It's not like I'm a salesman on the road five days a week 50 weeks a year. Travel's not my way of life. But I do it regularly enough that it's not an unusual sensation to say goodbye to the family and spend hours in airports.

So you'd think it would get easier to tear myself away from my home and my husband and my children. Not everyday routine, but not dreadful or extraordinary either.

And yet every time I stand at the door, sit in the garage, pause at the interstate on-ramp, and think -- Can I do this?

The bond between me and my home and family feels like the elastic cord that attaches the rubber ball to the bolo paddle. It stretches, it stresses; there's a risk of breaking that can be palpably felt in the muscles and the materials. Just the thought of pulling on the cord makes me nervous. At every segment of the journey, I have to take a deep breath to steel myself for stretching the bond again.

Here in the airport, ninety minutes away from the first leg of my trip to Aarhus by way of Chicago and Copenhagen, the urge to bail out and return home is less intense than it was when I closed the front door. In Chicago, it will be less still; in Copenhagen, almost gone; in Aarhus, I won't even remember it. The adventure takes over, and the homesickness recedes.

But traveling is a kind of powerlessness. The solo traveler's freedom of movement, of choice, of self-determination is purchased at the price of distance from the ordinary processes of home and hearth and loved ones, locations of control that she takes for granted. Temporary loss of contact with those people and places leaves the traveler weightless -- half exhilerated, half sick.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Crossing the ocean

Key items on my packing list for Denmark:
  • camera and extra battery
  • six days worth of clothes
  • portable umbrella
  • mittens and socks to knit
  • brand new birthday Kindle loaded up with Project Gutenberg books, a few select Amazon titles, and all the 14-day free trial subscriptions to magazines and blogs that I can fit on the home screen
Off I go!

Monday, October 13, 2008

It's finally here

Earlier this week, Noel turned to me and said, "It's going to be a big week for Donna on Popless."   The T's are in full swing on the alphabetical order as the year shades into gone.  And that means it's time for Todd Rundgren and Tom Petty, two of my favorite musicians of all time.  Well, let's amend that.  I love Tom Petty with a great and passionate love, but Todd Rundgren is part of my identity.

So I wait all week with bated breath to see what Noel will write about them.  This week's Popless goes up on the site late this afternoon, and I read through the entries while waiting to be picked up and taken to dinner.  

It was really a foolish vigil.  How could anybody sum up Rundgren and what he means to me without writing a dissertation? Obviously any fan as fanatical as I've been for decades is far too close to the subject to have any chance of understanding what the music might actually mean in a larger context. I have to say, Noel comes much closer than I ever could with this closing thought:
He's recorded a lot of adventurous, even groundbreaking albums, and he's established a public persona as a longhaired mad genius, and yet Rundgren's actual music is often aggressively uncool. He's like one of those sci-fi/RPG geeks who's cultivated a sense of personal style and has become the alpha geek of his tribe, yet is still out of place among regular folk. Then again, a lot of my closest friends are exactly those kinds of geeks, so over time I've developed a sense of affection and even protectiveness towards Rundgren. It helped that I began to hear in albums like Hermit Of Mink Hollow and The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect the sound of the true '80s pop—simple, buzzy, open—from those few glorious years before Trevor Horn, Arthur Baker and Mutt Lange screwed everything up.
There are only a few comments by that time I leave the office to get some Mexican food with the family, mostly about whether Tom Petty is any good or not.  (I had this discussion with Noel around the time he appeared on the Superbowl halftime show; "I hope this lays to rest the question of whether Tom Petty is in the canon," I think I said.)

When I got back into the office, where I've got ninety minutes or so to blog and work before it's time to show tonight's foreign film, there were 133 comments.  I read them.  Nobody mentioned Todd Rundgren.*

Is it wrong to feel rejected?

*40 minutes later, one brave soul has taken a stand, as follows:  
My secret crush and my publicly-avowed musical love. Discovered him in college and never stopped listening, even though I find myself occasionally mentally fixing his lyrics, as I'm sure he now wishes he could do. What complete oddness and sweetness. I adore Zen Archer and Does Anybody Love You? He's a genius producer too.
Thanks for the support, commenter-whose-pseudonym-is-too-crass-to-repeat-here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Cheese pranish

This afternoon, thanks to some generous kidsitting by my generous husband of twelve years today (happy birthday, hubble!), I was able to finish a draft of the paper I'm going to give at the ISRLC conference in Aarhus next Saturday. It's a little on the long side still, and it's not quite as inspired as the piece I wrote for last year's Society for Biblical Literature Forum in San Diego. But cutting it down to a twenty-minute presentation is easier than having to add material. And I'm confident that I can beef it up by about 50% at a later date to submit for publication.

Which means that the period of time I had allotted for preparing the intellectual content of the trip to Denmark is now over. Which means that the period of time -- two days and change -- for preparing the practical side of the trip to Denmark is beginning.

In other words: Time to panic.

What do I pack? What's the weather like? (Note to self: Get a folding umbrella.) How will I get my luggage from airline to airline in Chicago? Can I find the train to Aarhus once I land in Copenhagen? Should I get Danish money in Chicago or Copenhagen? Will I remember to make copies of all my documents and put them in both carry-on and checked baggage? Will I be able to find my hotel once I get to Aarhus? Will I be able to find the conference site at the university the next day? Can I negotiate the public bus system? What if something goes wrong?

Actually, two days of panic is a lot better than my usual week-long panic in the face of overseas travel. Practically relaxing, in fact. As long as I get the car back from the shop by Tuesday, and pick up my new contact lenses, and maybe get my hair cut (not counting on having time), and leave behind instructions for the second paper assignment for the freshmen, and don't forget my passport ...

Deep breath. I'll be fine.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

To infinity and beyond

Today's post with springtime handknit socks repurposed for fall is at Toxophily.

Archer wrote a poem on a sticky note and left it on our front picture window this morning. He's fascinated by the idea that integers ("the counting numbers," as it's put in his schoolbooks) go on and on forever.

The 123s

I'm 1, 2, 3, you know.
I will not have 0.
I will have no stop!

Friday, October 10, 2008

I know you know the festival

Today was a big day. Here's what happened.
  • Facebook birthday wishes continued to roll in. (On Facebook? Get in on the fun!)
  • A student with whom I worked closely back in 2002 and 2003 visited campus, on a break from his pursuit of a doctorate in history. Our hour-long Starbucks discussion wasn't half long enough.
  • Progress was made on the paper I'm reading at the International Society of Religion, Literature, and Culture meeting in Aarhus next week.
  • Archer finally won the coveted "Gallery Good As Gold," a sticker he's been talking about ever since he started going to Marguerite Vann. It's like the rarest Pokemon of Good-As-Golds. You get it for having one of the two best art projects in the class, the ones that get hung up in the hallway. The project was a family portrait, and Archer worked on it during his one art period per week for about a month. (We got to see it this evening; it was excellent, in my unbiased opinion.) The Gallery Good As Good is "colored," as Archer has been telling us breathlessly for months: "They're pink, and purple, and green, and stuff like that!" He got a purple one.
  • We went to the Fall Festival at Archer's school this evening, a huge fundraiser including a silent auction, chili cook-off, hot dog dinner, and carnival games. Archer won at bingo, to his great delight, and we took home a bag full of cheap trinkets that the kids won by throwing beanbags at things and picking up floating ducks. It's hard to overestimate how happy this made them.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Happy birthday to me

I'm 43 years old today.

What I'd like to do:
What I will do:
  • Blog the new episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
  • Dither over what knitting project to start
  • Fret over whether I'm going get my paper finished in the next five days

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Peer pressure

Over the last week, my fellow Honors administrators and I have made an interesting discovery about our university: it's riddled with multidisciplinary departments.

Now that might not seem like an important matter, but it's a eureka moment for those of us engaged in the campus-wide discussion over whether faculty should be tenured in interdisciplinary departments. A chief objection to that practice seems to be that no faculty member can be properly evaluated for tenure or promotion except by those who share his discipline. Only historians can evaluate the work of historians, only artists can evaluate the work of artists, only those with degrees in religious studies can evaluate the work of scholars in the field of religion. Since departments are the locations in which evaluation is done, departments must be defined by a common discipline (so the reasoning goes). Therefore there can be no interdisciplinary departments, because their denizens would not share a common discipline and therefore would be unable to form the committees needed to evaluate each other's work.

Yet there are multidisciplinary departments all over campus. Looking at the departments and degrees found in the six colleges, it's abundantly clear that departments are not organized around disciplines, but around functions suggested by the university and college missions. The Family and Consumer Science department encompasses disciplines as dissimilar as nutrition and interior design. The Mass Communications and Theater department houses journalism, theater, and digital filmmaking. The Health Studies department includes addiction studies and nuclear medicine. The Political Science department has faculty devoted to international studies and public administration. The Speech and Public Relations department -- well, you get the idea.

According to the procedures for tenure and promotion outlined in the faculty handbook, tenured faculty in each department form the primary committee for evaluating the work of their peers. Yet in these departments, the faculty are not peers in a disciplinary sense. According to the assumptions above, then, how is evaluation to be carried out?

Even more strikingly, many departments have added faculty with disciplines shared by no one else in their midst. There is one Chinese scholar in World Languages, one anthropologist in Sociology. What will happen when it comes time for them to be evaluated?

These facts seem to suggest that departments are not defined by disciplines. Instead, they are defined by their mission -- which is sometimes discipline-specific, but not always. In general, the mission of departments is to serve segments of educational need or demand in the student body. Those segments do not always conform to disciplinary boundaries.

If departments are defined by mission, then one's peers in the department don't have that status because they share a discipline, but because they pursue the same mission. It seems that the university has embraced, in fact if not in its self-reflection, this definition of a peer. Those who have no disciplinary peers in their departments are not stymied when it comes to tenure and promotion; instead, the members of that department rely on their shared experience to evaluate teaching and service, and rely on the solicited opinion of experts and on objective measures (such as the rejection rate of journals and conferences) to evaluate scholarship.

The important facet of this picture that is only now becoming clear for us is that the university (and its faculty) have not prevented any department from hiring faculty based on the objection that there will be no disciplinary peers on their tenure and promotion committees. If such objections were raised on the case of these multidisciplinary departments or peer-challenged junior faculty, it's difficult to imagine how the departments, colleges, or the university at large could ever add new specialties or programs. The reason they do, of course, is because such programs are needed to serve the student body -- because the missions of universities, colleges, and departments alike actually revolve around that service, not around disciplinary purity.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A gift of the past

My forty-third birthday is Thursday. (But I'm accepting congratulations early.) A few days ago my mom called and told me that she had just mailed my present, and she didn't know whether I'd like it.

Today it came: a photo album filled with pictures of me from babyhood all the way up through Archer's toddler years.

From this:

to this:

to this:

to this:

and beyond.

Years ago my dad started digitizing a generation's worth of 35mm slides, and those pictures are among the most well-thumbed in my iPhoto library. I had no idea we had as many prints as Mom found for this album. It's a treasure trove.

In other words: this present is awesome.

Monday, October 6, 2008

My uncle Dave

This is my uncle Dave. It's 1978, and he's at my grandparents' house on Lake Chickamauga opening Christmas presents.

I can hear him right now, as he rips open the paper. "Oh," he might say in his soft, expressive voice. "What's this? Oh my! Well, thankyouverymuch!" Uncle Dave was always understated. He had a low, ready laugh. He talked quickly, and usually quietly.

Every Christmas I looked forward to my present from Uncle Dave. He always got something unusual -- something a little exotic, usually with no practical purpose. I could never predict his presents. They were always a total surprise. I treasured them for their complete lack of utility.

Uncle Dave was my father's younger brother, the second of three boys. He studied music and became a renowned and accomplished pipe organist. He was the first in my father's family to get a Ph.D.

Uncle Dave was gay. Nobody in the family talked about it. I don't know anything about his relationships. I have vague memories of hearing my parents talk about his roommate. Of course I didn't understand anything about it until I was well into adulthood.

My uncle Dave died on Saturday, of complications brought on after a fall. I hadn't seen him in many, many years. I hope that for all those years of our separation he lived as I remember him: a world traveler, an effortless artist, a keeper of rare and unusual gifts.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Good evening

Today's post detailing the penultimate step of garment completion and soliciting advice is at Toxophily.

Remember that post where I listed all the books I have to read in the next month or two? It's been trumped by a package that appeared this Friday, with this inside it.

Yep, I'm a fan. Scott Tobias is interviewing the author for publication at the end of the month. Meanwhile, you can find out what came up on his iPod shuffle back in 2006 by clicking here.

My delight knows no bounds.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Reunited ...

... and it feels so gooooood ...

The seventies station to which I often listen while driving around town alone played that Peaches & Herb song today. (Fun fact: There have been five different Peaches, while Herb has remained constant. The third Peaches, Linda Greene, is the one featured on the group's biggest hits, "Reunited" and "Shake Your Groove Thing.") I was pulling out of a parking lot at the time, and as always happens when I hear that intro, I remembered a church trip to Six Flags Over Georgia when I was fourteen years old.

I wonder if the best friend who belted out the song with me on that bus remembers the moment like I do. We were inseparable for four years of elementary school. She lived at the bottom of the hill; I lived at the top. On summer days I'd follow the narrow trail through the undergrowth that separated her street from time and visit the little house where she lived with her mother. We'd listen to the music and watch the television shows that weren't entirely welcome at my house. Her life as the only child of a single mother was surely far from perfect, but from my privileged yet culturally restricted standpoint, her home was a paradise.

Although we went to different high schools, we spent time together at church. Something about our senses of humor clicked, and side by side we nourished mutual obsessions with the Beatles and the original cast of Saturday Night Live. That 1979 early morning pulling out of the church parking lot with the rest of the youth group, when "Reunited" came on the radio, it was like there was no one in the world but us. We put our arms around each other's shoulders and sang our hearts out.

This week in Popless Noel is writing about "Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)," which is "our song"; it was playing when Noel proposed in 1995. Most of us probably have songs like that in our lives. But I'm intrigued by the songs that define moments meaningful to us and possibly no one else. What songs never fail to bring back memories for you?

Friday, October 3, 2008


This week there's been a lot of talk around my office, from many sources, about the character of students. Specifically about their general desire to get something for nothing, sabotage as much of the authority structure as they can, and inability to be motivated by anything other than threats.

Such talk is not unusual. It's endemic in academia. Wherever two or three university employees are gathered together, yea, the image of the lazy, malicious, stupid student is there in the midst of them -- the object of complaints and the occasion for nostalgia about the golden age when students loved learning and Wikipedia had not yet been invented.

I know that I'm privileged to work with a class of student far brighter and more motivated than the general campus population. But even among people in my department, there is often an assumption that our students are trying to get away with as much as possible -- that all one can hope for is the occasional gem among the shuffling, plotting masses.

Even though I know it's often just a reflex among academic personnel to talk about students this way, it still gets me down. I'm wearied by the us vs. them assumptions built into it -- that we're in an arms race, with faculty and staff trying to stay one step ahead of students with an endless bag of learning-avoidance tricks; that the best we can hope for is to curtail their range of ignorance and sloth.

It's not that I'm a cockeyed optimist. It's that little of this talk has much relation to the experiences I have with students day in and day out. When I first starting teaching, my idea of a syllabus was to lay out readings and assignments I expected students to do, with penalties for non-compliance. My syllabi were dares: I put up a to-do list and waited to see who would defy it. And sure enough, most of the students wouldn't come through, and I'd blame it on their character.

But the real problem was the roles in which I placed them and myself. I was the agenda-setter; they were the dutiful followers. I thought that inviting them to take part in the design of the class meant putting a sentence in the syllabus asking for their suggestions, or having a blank day every three weeks where I asked for volunteers to lead class. Those aren't structures for student empowerment; they're a vacuum that I was asking them to fill.

Real structures that elicit student engagement and involvement aren't just spaces bereft of the instructor's agenda. They're carefully-constructed partnerships in which the students' contributions are systematically received and valued. An instructor values student contributions with her time. She takes the time to read, respond, and integrate student work into class -- not just a few times a semester, but every single class day. It has to be built into the structure of the class, as regular an occurrence as the class meeting itself. When student work rather than instructor knowledge is integral to the course -- by design, not by default -- most students do the reading, do the work, come prepared, and feel a part of what's going on. It can't be what we ask them to do; it's what we show them by our actions and our class structure that we need, value, and utilize.

Late today, after a very long, bewildering stint in the office watching power plays and cynicism and wary circling around each other, I went to a Soapbox. Soapboxes occur whenever a student has something to say to his peers. We provide a forum for the presentation, advertise it, serve snacks, set up chairs, and make A/V equipment available. Presenting a soapbox and attending a soapbox are both completely voluntary. It's not a requirement -- it's an opportunity. And it's an opportunity that we've shown students that we care about by spending administrative time and energy facilitating and promoting them.

They take place on Friday afternoons at 3 pm. How many students do you think would want to do a presentation at that time if they didn't have to? How many students do you think would attend if they didn't have to?

Answer #1: There are more Soapboxes scheduled this semester than there are Friday afternoons to hold them. A few have spilled over into weekday evenings.

Answer #2: This afternoon 30-40 students filled their residence hall lobby to hear a freshman -- someone who's only been a college student for a month and a half -- give a presentation on the fine art of thrift-store recycling.

Why? Because this is their time. They show up to support each other, to learn, to take the reins of their education. We provide the structure that makes it possible; they provide the content. And they do it not because they have to, but because they want to share what they have of value with each other.

When academics treat students as if they have something of value to share, whaddya know? Turns out they do. If we never expect anything of students but defacement of our own cherished values, well, it's not surprising that that's all we ever get. Just as a monument put up by the guardians of high culture invites graffiti, because onlookers resent being simply passive recipients of the messages of the elite, so a course that doesn't value student contributions in deed as well as in word stimulates mostly avoidance or revolt.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

In the spotlight

Almost since the semester began, I've had the strange and intermittently stressful feeling of being under scrutiny. There are several reasons that the eyes of others have been focused on me. At times it's been about me personally, and how I do my job. Other people see me as part of a group that's a problem on campus because we don't fit in one way or another.

Most of us like to do our job without attracting constant attention. Sure, we put ourselves in situations where all eyes are on us, and we have to perform. That's different from being examined for who you are -- characteristics of your personality -- or for the philosophy of education you represent. When the roving spotlight seems to be following you around, it can be a bewildering experience. You ask yourself what put you in the hot seat all of a sudden.

I haven't been going through this alone, and thank goodness I haven't been put in charge of justifying my existence. I've been getting plenty of support. It's been a valuable opportunity to learn more about myself and to think about what I do. But it will be nice to fade into the background and get back to doing my job, not a symbol nor an obstacle. Just me.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Books on the shelf

The start of the new semester put a real crimp in my summer reading schedule. For awhile there I was cranking out a book review a week, and I read some absolutely beautiful books -- The Story of Edward Sawtelle and The Condition chief among them.

While I'm teaching, it's hard for me to finish a single book in a month. But I'm going to have some concentrated reading time coming up during my late October trips. I probably can't haul hardbacks to Denmark, but the publisher was thoughtful enough to send a paperback advance reading copy of Malcolm Gladwell's latest, Outliers: The Story Of Success. Ditto for 2666 by Roberto Bolano, a posthumous publication by a cult Chilean-Mexican author.

I'm about halfway through the terrifying yet completely addictive Death From The Skies, a series of lessons in astrophysics, chemistry, and meteorology disguised as discussions of various apocalyptic scenarios (asteroid hitting the earth, massive solar flare, nearby supernova, etc.). And today Amitav Ghosh's Sea Of Poppies hit the mailbox.

I'm set through Thanksgiving at least. What's on your to-read shelf?